Earlier this year I had grand plans, like most of us did, of what I’d do with all this extra time I’d have from not having to commute to and from work since we’d all gone remote. It’s fair to say that in hindsight, that was a naive of me. As we’ve all found out, sitting home in isolation is actually far from a relaxing activity. Especially when the world outside is on fire and we start to recede into our own minds. Ideally, I would’ve read a few dozens books in this time (and I’m sure some people have, kudos to you). In reality, what i have managed to do is to read a few pages of several books and almost never finishing any one of them.
This morning, I felt like I was in the mood to read something. So I picked up a book that had only recently arrived. President Obama’s A Promised Land. (I’m only 30 pages into this one too so we’ll see how long this lasts). This book’s cover is rather minimal. It features a greyscale portrait of the president, his name and the title of the book in some uninteresting sans-serif font. So a thought popped in my mind. What’s my favorite book cover? I hadn’t ever thought of that before.
When I’m in Bangalore, I always at least half a day at Blossoms- that amazing book shop on Church Street. I developed my book-shopping habits there as a teenager, walking in there with my grandfather who had an insatiable appetite for books. I’d usually accompany him since I had a precious skill (without which you couldn’t survive in Bangalore) – I could hail Autorickshaws and negotiate a reasonable price too. Once we got there, I’d run off to the mystery/suspense thriller shelves in the hope of finding something interesting. He’d spend sometime chatting with the man behind the counter before starting his own exploration of the shop.
The thing with Blossoms was that it was an absolute mess. The shelves were high and stocked with books sold or donated to them over several years. That meant that Blossoms had a very specific ambience. A bibliophile’s dream. Books were everywhere, some not even stacked in the right shelves, mostly just piled on top of each other and the smell of old books was in every corner. It was beautiful. I’d pick a random book from a pile which was nearly as tall as I was, being particularly careful not to knock the whole thing over, dust it off and start reading a few pages. It was like walking through a treasure hunt and invariably you’d find something good! Almost inevitably, when you turn into an aisle you’d find a person slouched over themselves reading a book. You could spend as much time as you wanted there and nobody would bother you. So while my grandfather was picking up some rare edition Sherlock Holmes and a dozen other books, I’d be half way through a novel by an author I’d never head of before.
But over the years, I’ve come to appreciate how beautiful some books are, both inside and out. There’s some really beautiful ones like Chita Banerjee Divakaruni’s Palace of illusions. The edition I own has an illustrated version but I recently saw its original cover: vibrant, regal and mysterious much like the protagonist of its story. Amitav Ghosh’s river of smoke also has a beautifully illustrated cover with some heavy, sorrowful strokes and shades but with muted but hopeful colors. These books, like Arundathi Roy’s The ministry of utmost happiness, have covers that deeply reflect the themes of the story inside. Some non-fiction publications too have very appealing covers. Nobel Laureate Frank Wilczek’s Beautiful question has a lovely flower which reminds me a lot of some old iPhone wallpapers! James Crabtree’s Billionaire Raj features Mukesh Ambani’s Antillia set against a gorgeous night sky but it represents everything that the book talks about- how filthy rich the Ambanis are and what an absolutely galling symbol of inequality that building is. These are fairly recent books. Then there’s older books like Nehru’s discovery of India (which I hope everyone reads) with a rather unremarkable cover but with some of the most thoughtful, reflective writing I’ve ever read. But that’s not representative in anyway of publishing during that period. Take, for example, this book called Paper Currency in India. Its cover is plain and academic but it has a fancy, creative golden embossing- the kind you see on wedding invitations. In the quest for minimal and chic, we might have lost some of this awesome creativity! Look at the cover of India love poems! Bright, beautiful and unapologetically so. So good! Bring it back!!!
It doesn’t look like I’ll be heading back to blossoms anytime soon. So the days of picking up a random book and hoping for a surprise are gone. But in the few days remaining in this awful year, I wish I’ll restart at least some of my old reading habits with the books I already have. And when I do, I’ll spend some time admiring their covers too. Perhaps this will be my new reading habit- judging a book and its cover!